Monday, July 12, 2010

Staying Power

Here’s something I’ve always wondered about: why do some stories stay with us while others don’t?

(Just to be clear, I’m being all rhetorical-like at the moment. No need to whip out your iPhone or your iPad and quote me results of some Stanford study on memory retention.)

Here’s a perfect example of what I'm talking about: back when I was in 5th or 6th grade – so, like, ten or eleven years old -- I read this short story about a soldier. That might well have been the title of it, just “The Soldier.” The setting for the story was medieval times, and I think the main character – a soldier obviously -- was supposed to be a knight.

I can’t remember the details exactly, but I do recall that the young soldier was desperate to prove his valor, as were all the soldiers in the kingdom. In fact, each young soldier was given a shield, and when he’d proven his worthiness in battle through an act of supreme courage, a star would magically appear in the center of the shield. To have a star on your shield set you apart. It was sort of a rite of passage for all soldiers in the kingdom, and without that star, one could never really consider himself a man of valor and worth.

Obviously, the young soldier wanted to have a star in the center of his shield because he, like everyone else, wanted an outward sign that he had proven his bravery. Again and again, however, the young soldier is passed over for all the dangerous missions because he hadn't yet earned his star, and so he is denied the opportunity to do anything courageous to prove himself. Kind of a Catch-22 kind of thing going on there, though I'm sure I didn't know what that term meant back then.

Anyway, as time goes on, the young soldier remains without a star even as everyone around him seems to be earning them. He is quite forlorn.

Well, conveniently enough – this being medieval times – there is a huge battle looming with their bitter enemy in another kingdom, and the young soldier hopes he will be sent to fight this enemy.

Alas, he is again passed over and instead given the task to stay behind and guard the castle. He is deeply upset but he undertakes his duty anyway, despondent and resigned that he may never earn his star.

Now as it turns out, while most of the soldiers are far away engaged in this epic battle, the castle comes under assault from a powerful witch or something, who can transform herself into a number of pleasing forms. The witch wants to gain entry to the castle and poison the king or do some other dastardly magical thing while the rest of the king’s army is off fighting.

The witch becomes a beautiful young woman who tries to entice the soldier into letting her pass. When that doesn't work, she then uses other tricks on the soldier, offering him riches and so forth. The soldier rebuffs each and every temptation. He holds the evil doer at bay and does his duty – keeping the king and the castle safe.

When the other soldiers return from battle, they are amazed to see that the young soldier’s shield bears a star. How can this be? He stayed behind. He did nothing courageous. How could he possibly have earned his star? Even the young soldier discounts his accomplishment at first, thinking that it does not merit this reward.

But, no, there is no mistake. The magic star is always right. He has proven his bravery not in the usual way, through fighting, but through his steadfastness.

So that's the tale, and I've always wondered why has it stayed with me. I’m not even sure I got all the details correct, but I still remember the gist of the messages it contained: many battles are not obvious to others, and therefore most acts of bravery go unseen. Sometimes being brave simply means refusing to give in. And more importantly, we ourselves are too quick to dismiss many acts of courage because they're not big and showy.

What’s most amazing about the fact that I remember this story so well is that I was not a big reader at that age. I know a lot of authors go on and on about their love of reading from the time they were young, but I can assure you, that was not me. I was probably out setting fires back then, and most things I read in school went sailing through my head unnoticed. What’s more, though I don’t even remember the author’s name, I do remember this story, and it has been meaningful to me all my life.

Why am I sharing this with you?

I just thought this soldier story might be worth keeping in mind the next time you sit down to write. It seemed to me the perfect example of why we do what we do and how we go about doing it.